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A Christmas crash landing [retrospective]

Northwest 767 on final approach to Logan
Two years ago I spent Christmas in a burning airplane 36,000 feet above the Northern Pacific Ocean. The upside of the situation was that I got to miss the typical Christmas drama. The downside was I nearly died.

Here is a recap of the whole experience I wrote a few weeks later for my college paper, The Michigan Daily.

At 7:15 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was sure I was going to die.

Fifteen minutes earlier, I had been sleeping soundly, strapped into seat 39-H of Northwest’s flight 26 from Tokyo to Detroit, when it felt like a freight train tore through the airplane.

My friend gestured me over to take a look at the engine directly outside his window. While the engine outside my window seemed to be producing mostly noise, the engine outside his was spewing an alarming quantity of fire and sparks.

I didn’t say anything. I sat back down. I thought about what it would be like to go to my death with the 160 other people who had opted for the discounted Christmas day flight.

I glanced at the flight staff to try to determine whether or not panicking was in order. It didn’t seem like it. Most of the other passengers were still asleep. The screens playing “Monster House” kept playing.

A number of stewardesses were peering out of the windows at the massive flames spewing from the engine. Then the co-pilot ventured back into the cabin to ascertain for himself whether or not the plane was on fire.

It was.

Apparently the pilot did not believe his deputy’s story. So a few moments later, he came to the back of the cabin to investigate the source of the bright red light illuminating the northern night sky. My guess is that he too determined that the mysterious glow was likely caused by the billowing flames and sparks consuming the left wing of the airplane. I can’t be sure about this, though.

That’s when I decided that there were definite pros and cons to my life ending then and there – in a fiery place crash into the Pacific Ocean.

The clear upside to the situation, as far as I could tell, was that I was going to be spared from recounting my Chinese travels to the masses that were at my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. Plus, I knew a plane full of American’s dying in a plane crash as they were flying home from Communist China for Christmas would make a killer human interest story. It would have been quite the dramatic exit.

The serious downside to the situation was that I had spent my last hours in China purchasing presents for people I wouldn’t ever see again. If I had only known my return flight was going to catch fire, I would have spent those last few hours sightseeing or at the bar, not buying scarves at a silk factory.

By this point in the ordeal I had come to terms with my situation.

While I found my arguments in favor of a dramatic Christmas day death very persuasive, I nevertheless decided I was not quite ready to die. After all, just that morning I had heard that Bill Clinton was slated to be my commencement speaker.

So I decided to act.

I set out to spearhead the praying effort, since neither my emergency landing nor my airplane repair skills were quite up to snuff. So with a renewed sense of piety, I began praying the rosary. Because I left my physical rosary at home, I had to improvise with the materials I had available to me in seat 39-H. I made a mark on the index page of the Northwest Airlines Sky Mall catalogue after I completed each recitation of the Hail Mary so that I did not lose my place. Ten Hail Marys, recite the second mystery of faith, an Our Father and then more Hail Marys.

Sometime around the third batch of Hail Marys, the pilot somehow extinguished the fire. But he was not able to get the engine functioning again.

A little while later, as I was fumbling through the Apostles Creed for my second time, the cabin lights came on and the pilot read two announcements, both of which he delivered in the same tone.

The first announcement was that we would not be landing in Detroit after all. Because we had “lost use of engine one,” which I imagine is pilot speak for “engine one exploded for no apparent reason,” we were going to have to land in Anchorage, Alaska.

The second announcement had to do with our meal service. As the pilot explained, Anchorage was quite a bit closer to our current location than Detroit, so to make sure we received all the meals we paid for, they were going to have to serve breakfast several hours ahead of schedule.

Northwest was sorry for any minor inconvenience this might have caused us.

The good news, from my perspective, was that the pilot had some reason to believe the plane would be landing after all. The bad news was that we were still well over an hour from dry land – and judging by the precarious angle that we were flying at, I was not altogether convinced that we were going to make it to a paved runway before touching down.

After savoring every last bite of my SkyChefs’s French toast breakfast, I began preparing myself for a crash landing in the Pacific.

I diligently reviewed the emergency landing card to figure out the precise procedure for surviving a water-based landing and checked to make sure that there was, in fact, a life preservation device under my seat cushion.

There was.

It then occurred to me that the north Pacific might be rather cold in late December. I reasoned that the stewardesses were probably distracted by frightened guests and preparing for a likely crash landing, and I could probably get away with disregarding the normal rules. So I decided to violate the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign and retrieve my coat and scarf from the overhead compartment. I did not want to catch a chill while waiting for the rescuers to come. I also took this opportunity to move to a seat in an exit row. A careful reading of the crash-landing-procedure card had revealed that it was likely to be quite crowded on the inflatable rafts, and I reasoned it would be a wise move to make sure I was first in line for a seat. I did not want to be too uncomfortable waiting for the rescuers to come. It was Christmas day, after all.

But the rescuers never had to come. Somehow the pilot managed to get the plane to Ted Stevens International Airport, where we were greeted by a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances.

I think Northwest press-ganged every available bus driver in Anchorage into service that morning to shuttle me and 150 other Northwest airlines refugees to the hotel. We spent Christmas day at the anchorage Hilton waiting for a new plane – one with engines that did not explode into flame – to come and take us the rest of the way to Detroit.

The other passengers seemed less than amused that they had to spend Christmas in Alaska. Because I was nearly prepared to go down in flames to escape holiday misery, avoiding Christmas without having to die in the north pacific was perhaps the greatest gift I received this holiday season. Thank you, Northwest Airlines.

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